When we at Hot Rod magazine invited ourselves to this year’s Cheap Truck Challenge, we immediately viewed it as a competition. 4WOR Tech Editor Fred Williams kept telling us that CTC was simply to show a teen on a burger-flipping budget that a 4x4 can offer big fun for a cash outlay less than a yearlong cell phone contract. But we took the position of being a very competitive teen burger flipper—and an impatient one, as our need to purchase a rig that was in CTC-ready condition (running, driving, registered, and competent) would also prove that it’s possible to get instant gratification from a project rig.
In considering the used-truck possibilities, we knew that we wanted a 4x4 with a solid front axle rather than IFS, not only for off-road reliability but also because the solid-axle suspensions are so much cheaper and easier to lift. With Williams and Rick Péwé having already covered the Chevy and Toyota options in, respectively, “CheapBurban” this issue and “Cheap Truck Challenge Build 1,” Aug. ’12, we were left with Scouts, Dodges, Samurais, Jeeps, and early Fords. Scouts were out due to age and parts availability. For the Dodges, we avoided the early models with the full-time NP203 transfer cases, and we couldn’t find a ’94- up truck that was within the budget. We would have owned a Sammy if we could have found a good one. We seriously considered a ’93-’98 Grand Cherokee ZJ, as they are available with V-8 power (though the ’93-’95 V-8s have the viscous-coupled NP249 transfer case you want to avoid), have great four-wheel-coil suspension, and are easy to work on. Williams vetoed a Wrangler, CJ, or XJ as too obvious. In Fordland, we investigated a very cool ’74 F-250 4x4, but it had the factory ram-assist steering (’67-’77) that was a mess. Those setups are expensive to fix, and the lack of power assist was a nonplayer for stuff like the obstacle course.
Finally, the score. We found a ’79 Bronco, and while at $2,500 it was $488 more than the purchase budget, it was ready to wheel. Most importantly, it was already lifted (4 or 6 inches, we’re not sure) and had good 33x12.50 Goodyear MTs. Having decent tires was a big win, as the price of rubber has skyrocketed over the past several years.
The ’78 and ’79 Broncos come with great parts from the factory: a Dana 44 in the front, a 31-spline 9-inch in the rear, an NP205 transfer case, a C6 auto trans, and coil springs up front. These rigs ride on a perfect 104-inch wheelbase and have a great steering angle, and the top and doors are easily removable. The only downer is the gutless engine. The original options were a 351M or 400, both of which are astoundingly efficient at turning lots of gas into very little power. Ours had a bone-stock 351 with a sketchy two-barrel carb. Engines aside, these two-year-only Broncos are among the best classic 4x4s.
Our example had been lifted properly (meaning the aft ends of the radius arms had been dropped to maintain caster angle), but the front brake hose was tightroped and the stock Panhard bar caused some bumpsteer. We solved those by mangling the brake hardline into a new position and buying a dropped Panhard bracket.
The factory axle gears in the Bronco were 3.50s and we couldn’t afford anything lower, but we did want some form of traction device in the rear diff. Bummer: Our Bronco had a factory Trac-Lock that wasn’t working. Because it was not an open diff, we couldn’t install a lunchbox locker or minispool. We took the next cheapest option, using a full steel spool. It chirps the tires around every corner, but at least we’d have positive traction in the dirt.
We quickly grew to love our new Bronco. Now if we could just find another couple hundred horsepower.
Vehicle Budget $2,012.00
Vehicle Price 2,500.00
Upgrade Budget $2,012.00
Upgrade Spent 878.00
Total Spent 3,378.00
For Future Upgrades 646.00
Sadly, we’re going to part company with the Bronco. It has been fun, but the California smog inspection is just too much of a nightmare for one of the mid-’70s truck with their miles of vacuum hoses and switches. The irony is that we could install virtually any newer fuel-injected V-8 in the truck and we’d get better gas mileage while creating less pollution, but the engine-change laws are too draconian to justify the expense. It almost makes us want to take all the best goodies off our old Ford and slap them on something even older. But alas, that’s not in the cards. We bid adieu to our short-term warhorse.